the story behind the downtown decatur mainstay
written by cindy small
The riverboat captain of Decatur, Alabama, Simp McGhee, remains a legend of the Tennessee River. Known for his non-conformist and unruly ways, McGhee was quite a character, one who indulged himself on playing pranks on fisherman. He even owned a pet pig that drank beer with him at his bar on Bank Street.
Every Thursday, McGhee blew a steam whistle to let his beloved, Kate, know that he had arrived in town. Though very skillful as a riverboat captain, in 1917, he lost his license due to reckless shooting near Chattanooga. He died shortly after at Miss Kate’s house, but the restaurant he founded continues to this day and is just a short stroll from the Tennessee River.
That restaurant, now owned by Christy Wheat, is still a standing institution in Decatur. Wheat, like McGhee, is a formidable figure. Her personality fills the rooms along with her confidence. She owns the talent and moxie to handle a plurality of tasks with grace and self-assurance. You just know she will make it happen.
In 1995, Wheat worked as a server at Simp’s with no experience whatsoever in the restaurant business. She was bright, not afraid of performing any tasks and prepared to do anything from mop floors to serve scrumptious meals to customers. At one point, her boss became ill and knew that Wheat had the innate ability to operate such a demanding business.
Wheat didn’t want to work for anyone else. She wanted to purchase the place because she was convinced she could morph it into a popular Decatur restaurant. The first change she made was pulling a draft beer. And with that, Simp’s became an even more popular anchor restaurant on Bank Street.
Wheat has developed a winning team in the kitchen with chef, Dean Moore. Do not get the idea that Wheat can only be found in the kitchen, though. She is always on high alert for what is needed throughout the restaurant and makes it all flow like a well-oiled machine. Whether it is tending the bar, hosting or serving, Wheat is ready to rock and roll throughout the restaurant ensuring every customer is pleased and happy. That is the ingredient that makes her such a high-achiever in an incredibly demanding business.
With a cast of 20 employees and no need to ever advertise, Wheat has watched children in Decatur grow up. She is known to say “come Friday evening at Simp’s everyone knows everyone.” She has not made any changes in the interior of the building and loves the wear and tear on the furniture.
The restaurant provides three areas for dining. You can dine al fresco outside and bring your pet so you both can do people watching. Another option is the rustic bar inside with tables and chairs for casual dining while partaking in a fabulous cocktail or three. The original bar is still beautifully intact; remains of part of the brothel that was once there. Finally, upstairs is fine dining where large groups congregate for events. At the end of the school year, prom nights and sororities own a special piece of real estate in that room while other customers delight in the menu specialties.
Dean transforms fine dining with a Cajun twist. “The Pontchartain,” fresh fish topped with bay shrimp, crab, mushrooms and green onions over brown rice, remains the “MacDaddy” of all options on the menu. Experience another all-time favorite, “Dean’s Delight”—prime tenderloin with gulf shrimp, Cajun Alfredo with sauce and pasta—or dive into the “Pork Delano,” a grilled 12 oz bone-in pork chop, a fried andouille grit cake, served with brown sugar and butter carrots. There are also vegetarian offerings.
The restaurant also offers Oyster Night, a huge Friday night favorite occurring September to April each year. You cannot go wrong with freshly shucked oysters, live music and friendship among the guests at a crowded bar. Invisibly seated at the rustic worn tables, I am certain ghosts could speak volumes about McGhee’s past.
Simp McGhee’s will soon anchor changes to Bank Street. Buildings on the street are being converted into loft apartments and will include a market with a butcher and a variety of gourmet products. With this growth, Simp McGhee’s plans to remain the place to meet and be treated like family.
Catering and parties are offered at Simp McGhee’s with the same popular and flavorful menu options. Do not forget Simp’s sister restaurant, Josie’s, conveniently located across the street from The Princess Theater, at 109 Second Ave. where you can get your Mediterranean fix of delicacies and tapas.
Feel free to contact Christy Wheat, 256-353-6284, 725 Bank Street Northwest, Decatur, Alabama 35601. Open daily for dinner at 5 pm.